When Trump was elected, most criminal justice reform advocates were alarmed that the programs put in place by Obama and the Department of Justice under Obama would go by the wayside. That included a focus on police reform, the 21st Century Policing Report and recommendations. The worst fears have been borne out and then some.
We remembered the full page ad taken out by a purportedly different Donald Trump in 1989, calling for the death penalty for the Central Park 5 – five young black men, who were later exonerated after having been wrongly convicted.
The comments made last week by the President take us to the next troubling step.
During the middle of his immigration speech in Long Island, New York, on Friday, he paused from his discussion of MS-13, gang violence and illegal immigration to give law enforcement some unsolicited advice on how to treat suspects.
He said, “When you see these thugs thrown into the back of a paddy wagon, I said, please don’t be too nice.” The President used hand gestures to punctuate the latter part of the statement.
“When you guys put somebody in the car and you’re protecting their head, you know, the way you put their hand over?” President Trump said, miming the physical motion of an officer shielding a suspect’s head to keep it from bumping against the squad car.
“Like, don’t hit their head, and they just killed somebody – don’t hit their head,” President Trump continued. “I said, you can take the hand away, okay?”
That line generated applause from the gathered uniformed officers. When he turned to face them, many smiled and chuckled.
This was a step too far for many law enforcement organizations. The Suffolk County police quickly moved to distance themselves from the remarks, indicating that this is not acceptable treatment of people in custody.
“The Suffolk County Police Department has strict rules and procedures relating to the handling of prisoners, and violations of those rules and procedures are treated extremely seriously,” the department said in a statement. “As a department, we do not and will not tolerate ‘rough[ing]’ up prisoners.”
Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo tweeted, “To be clear, inappropriate attempt at gallows humor does not reflect values of respect & commitment to constitutional policing of profession.”
Ben Tobias of the Gainesville, Florida, Police Department tweeted, “I do not agree with or condone @POTUS remarks today on police brutality. Those that applauded and cheered should be ashamed.”
His comments also drew strong criticism from the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
Their statement did not mention the President specifically, but responded to his speech in stressing the importance of treating all people, including suspects, with respect.
“Managing use of force is one of the most difficult challenges faced by law enforcement agencies,” the group said. “The ability of law enforcement officers to enforce the law, protect the public, and guard their own safety, the safety of innocent bystanders, and even those suspected or apprehended for criminal activity is very challenging.
“For these reasons, law enforcement agencies develop policies and procedures, as well as conduct extensive training, to ensure that any use of force is carefully applied and objectively reasonable considering the situation confronted by the officers,” the statement continued.
Vanita Gupta, who directed the Justice Department’s civil rights division under the Obama administration, decried the comments, stating that they ran counter to efforts from local police agencies to repair relationships with their communities.
“Trump’s remarks today are unconscionable,” said Vanita Gupta, now President and Chief Executive Officer of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, in a statement. “The President of the United States, standing before an audience of law enforcement officials, actively encouraged police violence. His remarks undermine the positive efforts of local law enforcement agencies and communities around the country working to address police misconduct and build community-police trust.”
Janai Nelson, Associate Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said President’s Trump’s comments “encouraging police officers to disregard the safety of individuals in their custody rises to a new level of danger.
“We need law enforcement who do not share the Trump Administration’s outdated and unlawful views to promote protecting the rights and safety of all Americans by condemning those who condone impunity among law enforcement,” Mr. Nelson said.
The ACLU added in a tweet, “Trump addressed law enforcement officers in Brentwood, NY today and endorsed the use of force against people suspected of criminal activity… Encouraging police to dole out extra pain at will is urging lawlessness that already imperils the lives of people of color at shameful rates.”
This is not only a continuation of efforts by Trump and AG Jeff Sessions to undo reforms put in place under the Obama administration, it takes it to a next level. Mr. Trump has made the defense of law enforcement officers – under fire for their treatment of people of color as well as a series of police shootings and officer-involved in-custody deaths – a centerpiece of both his campaign and his administration.
Mr. Sessions has tied an increase in violent crime to the pushback against police shootings and groups like Black Lives Matter.
Mr. Sessions has launched a review of police reform agreements in place nationally. These agreements have been reached after federal civil rights investigations and with the cooperation of local law enforcement.
Mr. Sessions said that consent decrees forcing reforms on departments can “undermine the respect for police officers.” In April, he announced that the Justice Department would review all existing agreements to ensure they do not work against the Trump administration’s goals of fighting violent crime while protecting officer safety and morale.
Has Trump gone too far? Even police organizations – who are desperately trying to rebuild trust – have pushed back, but we also know that the group of officers cheering him on represent a sizable obstacle to continued reform efforts.
—David M. Greenwald reporting